MPs: DfE has failed to tackle teacher retention

Public Accounts Committee urges government to ‘get a grip’ on teacher retention

Published on 2nd February 2018

The Department for Education has failed to get a grip on teacher retention, the Public Accounts Committee has warned.

While the teaching workforce increased by 15,500 from 441,800 in November 2010 to 457,300 in November 2016, this masks the fact that the number of teachers in secondary schools fell by 10,800 from 219,000 in 2010 to 208,200 in 2016, said the committee.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said: “Government must get a grip on teacher retention and we expect it to set out a targeted, measurable plan to support struggling schools as a matter of urgency.”

The government does not have a plan

The committee’s report states that a variety of factors have contributed to the growing sense of crisis for schools in England struggling to retain and develop their teachers.

Pupil numbers are rising, the Department for Education expects schools to make efficiency savings yet teachers are leaving the profession citing heavy workloads.

In primary schools the pupil-teacher ratio remained fairly constant between 2011 and 2016, but in secondary schools the ratio increased, from 14.9:1 to 15.6:1 over the same period, even though pupil numbers fell. The Department forecasts that secondary school pupil numbers will increase by 540,000 (19.4%) between 2017 and 2025, and that pupil-teacher ratios will continue to rise.

The number of qualified teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement increased from 6% (25,260) of the qualified workforce in 2011 to 8.1% (34,910) in 2016. The Department does not understand why more teachers are leaving the profession, and does not have a coherent plan to tackle teacher retention and development.

While it has a range of relatively small-scale initiatives, these have not been communicated adequately to schools. The Department says it will be streamlining its approach, and that it was developing a plan that it expected to be ready by the end of 2017–18. It also acknowledges that the balance of investment has not been right, with £555 million spent each year on training new teachers and just £36 million spent on programmes to retain and develop teachers.

Concerns over teachers’ wellbeing

Workload is the primary reason that teachers leave schools, yet the department has not set out what impact it is seeking to achieve from its interventions on this issue. Workload is a significant barrier to teacher retention. The department’s own survey, published in February 2017, found that classroom teachers and ‘middle leaders’ worked 54.4 hours on average during the reference week.

Head-teachers told the committee that they are concerned about increasing workload which has a detrimental effect on the quality of teaching and teachers’ wellbeing. Teachers are teaching classes for a high proportion of their time, there are larger classroom sizes and the pace of change in assessment and the curriculum have exacerbated the problem.

“We do not expect the department to prescribe how many hours teachers should work but do expect it to understand and have a view on the relationship between workload and retention,” said the report. “We also expect the department to be mindful of the impact on workload of decisions that schools have necessarily had to take to make efficiency savings, such as increasing class sizes and contact time, and of its own decisions, such as regular curriculum and assessment changes.”

The report outlines that teachers are not getting enough good quality continuing professional development throughout their career, which has implications for teacher retention and quality and ultimately for pupil outcomes. While the DfE does not collect data, research by the Educational Policy Institute found that on average teachers in England spent only four days a year on CPD in 2013 compared with an average of 10.5 days across the 36 countries covered by the analysis. Head teachers told the committee how vital it is for teachers to undertake good quality CPD at all stages of their career not just in the first few years and highlighted time and cost as the main barriers to teachers undertaking CPD.

The report also highlighted that schools are struggling to recruit teachers of the right quality, particularly in some subjects and some parts of the country. During 2015–16 school leaders filled only around half of their vacant posts with qualified teachers with the experience and expertise required. Schools are struggling to recruit teachers in science, maths and modern foreign languages in particular, and these subjects are expected to be most affected by the UK leaving the European Union.

House prices are a barrier to retention

The committee also highlighted its concerns around the cost of living and particularly housing costs which are impacting on some areas ability to recruit and retain staff. Committee Members highlighted the high cost of housing in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire as a barrier to retaining teachers locally.

The National Audit Office’s survey of school leaders found that, after workload, factors affecting the cost of living (for example house prices) are the second most significant barrier to teacher retention, with 42% of respondents reporting it as a barrier. In 2015 the highest proportions of secondary schools reporting at least one vacancy were in outer London and the South East, where house prices are high.

More pupils are now in schools where Ofsted has rated the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as outstanding or good: 90% of primary school pupils and 82% of secondary school pupils in 2016. However, in five of the nine English regions, all in the Midlands or the North of England, more than 20% of pupils were in secondary schools rated as requires improvement or inadequate for teaching, learning and assessment. The department could not explain why the quality of teaching varies so much across the country, and what action it would take to improve quality in the Midlands and the North of England in particular.

In addition, the department has not made clear what it means by its aim of improving social mobility through its 12 opportunity areas and how it will measure progress, the committee found.

It makes a number of recommendations including how the department should write to the committee by April 2018 setting out its plans for improving the quality of CPD available to teachers and explain in more detail its aims for the opportunity areas over both the short term and long term.

By April 2018, the department should set out and communicate a coherent plan for how it will support schools to retain and develop the teaching workforce and work with others in the school sector to set out what is an acceptable level of teacher workload.

The department should conduct more work to understand why there are regional differences in teaching quality and, in light of its findings, set out how it proposes to improve the quality of teaching in the Midlands and the North of England specifically. It should also should set out how it will take account of the housing requirements for teachers, particularly in high-cost areas, in order to support recruitment and retention.

Brewing crisis

Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP: “A crisis is brewing in English classrooms but government action to address it has been sluggish and incoherent.

“It should have been clear to senior civil servants that growing demand for school places, combined with a drive for schools to make efficiency savings, would only build pressure in the system.

“Instead they seem to have watched on, scratching their heads, as more and more teachers quit the profession.

“There are other troubling trends. In 2015/16 school leaders filled only around half of their vacancies with sufficiently qualified and experienced teachers.

“There are significant regional variations in vacancy levels and the quality of teaching also varies across the country. There is not enough good quality, continuing professional development available.

“There is a real danger that, without meaningful intervention from government, these challenges will become an intractable threat to children’s education,” she concluded.

Retaining and developing the teaching workforce



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